This wouldn’t be about Sam Allen if the 71-year-old Mesa resident has his way. He doesn’t mind being part of it, but what follows wouldn’t focus as much on his efforts as much as it would the many people he works alongside during the week.
Through whatever universal lottery exists, Allen found his way into the spotlight, and he earned it through his volunteer efforts at two Banner hospitals. His efforts aren’t Herculean or grandiose in nature, but they do provide patients at least a moment of ease during their hospital visits.
What Allen does at Banner Baywood Medical Center and Banner Heart Hospital isn’t physically strenuous, nor does it require much physical activity beyond moving from one room to the next. Rather, Allen is an invaluable ear and soundboard, something akin to a translator for patients to understand the complications of “doctor speak.” He visits patients in their rooms, sits next to them and offers conversation that can last a few minutes or a couple hours.
He said the chats oscillate in nature between sports, simply shooting the breeze or direct concerns a patient might have about his or her treatment. He can attest to the latter from time he spent at Baywood with his wife, who died of cancer in 2009, and his own treatment at the heart hospital for a heart attack he sustained and survived last October, two months after he first volunteered.
“I started because I felt, like many people, I owed society a little bit of debt,” he said. “Now, I can’t quit because I get so much out of it.”
Mondays are new days for Allen because the weekend activity brings in a new batch of patients for him to visit. His rounds on April 14th took him to two new Banner Heart Hospital patients: 88-year-old Larry Enger and 50-year-old Mesa resident Donna Jackson.
Jackson was in the early stages of her recuperation from recent heart surgery. She coughed frequently and hugged a heart-shaped pillow to her chest to stifle more coughs from coming back. Their conversation lasted a few minutes and had Allen outline what Jackson could expect as she ventures through the recovery process.
“It hurts,” she said at one point in their conversation.
“It gets better,” he responded.
His role sometimes expands beyond that of a willing ear and into more familial territories. Many people who visit hospitals have at least one person around who can take care of them; Jackson, for example, had her mother around to grab a glass of water and stay by her side.
But that’s not the case for every hospital patient, and those become the times when he engages in longer conversations and spends time with a person in recovery.
“There are people with no family, and I fill that gap,” he said.
Allen said he’s pretty much “on call” at all times — some days his visits last about three hours, and he might linger around for seven if needed — and his role expands during the holidays to encompass hospital visits dressed in a red suit and a large white beard. The older patients are particularly tickled by it.
He does a lot, but Allen still defers credit to the other volunteers and the hospital staff he works alongside on a daily basis.
“It’s a whole team effort and I’m just one small part,” he said.
His part is a cog in the proverbial volunteer wheel that has volunteers serve in a number of roles across the Banner hospital system. Some, such as Allen, work one-on-one with patients, while others might run a hospital’s gift shop.
Either way, the roles volunteers play at the hospitals have sizable ramifications for the not-for-profit organization. Senior Manager of Volunteer Services Jenna Davis, who coordinates the Roadrunner program Allen volunteers through, said Banner had a total of 975 people volunteer in 2013, with between 500 and 600 volunteering concurrently. They accounted for more than 119,400 hours and did the work of 57.3 fulltime employees, which rounds out to approximately $2 million in economic savings for Banner.
The figures ebb and flow throughout the year — Davis said the winter season is busy due to the visitors, while the summer is a little lighter — but the number of volunteers was down from the 1,200 Banner had in 2012.
Volunteering in a place as hectic as a hospital isn’t an easy thing to do. Allen’s visit on the 14th included a man who banged his head severely outside the front door, and Davis said it takes a special kind of person to become a hospital volunteer.
It’s a label that fits Allen quite snuggly, and his time as a volunteer has offered its own fair share of awards. As he put it, it took him until the age of 70 to learn what he wanted to do when he grew up: serve as a volunteer at a hospital.
“If I can make one person feel better, then I’ve had a good day. And I usually have a good day,” he said.
Anyone interested in volunteering at Banner can visit bannerhealth.com/Giving+Back/_GivingBack.htm